As a species we have developed a relatively new way to interact that has nearly supplanted in-person communication. Instead of coming together to connect and exchange goods, ideas, and services, we turn on our devices and look at collections of pixels. We are spending more and more of our time online every year, and less and less time having real life connections. It has become so ubiquitous to see people hunched over their smartphones, tablets, or laptops, that you can go through an entire day in a bustling city and never actually see another persons eyes.
For most people, the Internet is a powerful communications and transactions tool. It serves a function as a necessary part of daily work and social life. And then they are capable of turning off their devices after a reasonable amount of screen time, and engage in real-world activities. But some people have a relationship with the Internet that goes way beyond reasonable, interfering with their physical, mental, and emotional health.
What Is Internet Addiction Disorder?
Addiction wears many faces. Doctors once believed that people could only be addicted to a physical substance like alcohol or sugar. But anecdotal evidence and clinical research is showing that it is equally possible for people to be addicted to behaviors. Behavioral addiction is an inability to control the frequency and intensity of ones engagement in certain activities.
Just like a substance addiction, when someone suffers from a behavioral addiction he or she has uncontrollable urges to engage in the behavior, even when there are obvious negative consequences. The feeling of needing to indulge in the behavior overwhelms reason, willpower, and sometimes even normal physical and emotional needs like eating, sleeping, and human contact. And as with substance addictions, people with behavioral addictions feel unable to stop the behavior even if they know they are doing harm to themselves.
Internet addiction disorder (IAD) is now recognized by most psychologists as an impulse control problem, a type of behavioral addiction. Like other addictions, it hijacks the brains reward circuitry, the mesolimbic dopamine pathway. In addicted brains, substances and behavior take the place of achievement, love, food, and other things in life that are considered beneficial to experience on a chemical level. Because of their intense nature, an addiction agent causes a more powerful surge through this circuitry, at least at first, than the normal healthy stimuli. As the addiction grows we need increasing amounts of the stimulus to experience the same release of reward and pleasure chemicals.
Why Its a Problem
Pathological Internet use can be seriously detrimental to a persons work, relationships, and mental and physical health. On a physical level, it can cause wrist and hand problems such as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome; eye problems and premature vision loss; back, neck, and headaches; insomnia and sleep deprivation; nervous system disorders and extreme stress; seizures; mood swings; and severe weight gain and metabolic disorders.
Because it highly stimulates the brains reward system in an addicted person, IAD makes normal experiences that would trigger a healthy amount of reward in a balanced brain seem lackluster. This is why people with IAD can be a lot more excited about online gaming than eating a healthy meal or going to a live social event. Eventually, IAD can lead to cognitive and emotional impairment and a complete inability to function in any real environment.
Some people can become artificially attached to the friends and activities in their virtual world, that provide all the pleasure of an artificial relationship with none of the vulnerability and discomfort of real-world connection. Online, you can be whoever you want, and choose to believe whatever people tell you. You can dive into complete fantasy worlds, with assumed personality traits and powers, while in real life you might be socially awkward or in some other way embarrassed about yourself. This can make it that much harder to courageously engage with real, imperfect people in the wildly uncontrollable real world.
People can lose their jobs from lack of focus on them, spend all of their money in online gambling sites and games, fail at school, lose their real world friends and spouses, and even their homes. In South Korea, where 1 in 10 children are addicted to the Internet, government officials are concerned that people with IAD are unengaged citizens. This weakens the social and political fabric of an entire nation.
In the most extreme cases, pathological Internet use can be deadly. A South Korean couple allowed their three-month-old daughter to starve to death while they were online in a cyber caf. They would leave the infant alone for 10 hours a night while they played an online game, and according to police reports she died of slow malnutrition, a form of negligent homicide, because her parents were more interested in their virtual worlds than the real one.
Types of Internet Addiction
Internet addiction can take several forms. The most common are net compulsions, such as online gambling and gaming, bidding on items on eBay and other auction sites, and stock market trading. This is closely followed by cybersex addictions such as obsessively viewing recorded and live pornography and visiting adult chat rooms. Cybersex addictions are also linked to sexual addiction. Cyber relationships are also a whole world of Internet addiction, and include such activities as social networking, spending time in chat rooms, and texting.
Symptom of a Larger Problem
Internet addiction does not usually evolve in a vacuum, nor in socially engaged and emotionally balanced people. In a way it can be seen as more of a symptom than the illness itself. As with other addictions, people often turn to the Internet when they are unable to handle the challenges in their lives. They may not have the coping skills to manage stress, loneliness, depression, or anxiety. Unfortunately, instead of healing these issues, turning to virtual connection and fulfillment only exacerbates the problem, causing people to become more isolated and increasingly inept at managing challenging emotions.
Primal issues like low self-esteem, lack of confidence, feelings of inadequacy, and self-judgment are prime stimulus for Internet addiction. IAD can be a maladaptive way of dealing with depression and negative self-concepts which have to be worked on for any attempts at transforming the addiction to be successful.
How to Tell If You Are Addicted to the Internet
IAD is a tricky thing to clearly diagnose. Some people need to be online for many hours a day for work and school responsibilities. Two people can be online for the same length of time on average, with one being addicted and the other not. What makes it an actual addiction is when other aspects of your life are being neglected, you are unable to stop using the Internet despite negative consequences, you think about it all the time, and you get online even when you feel like you shouldnt be. Some clues your Internet use may be pathological include:
* You think about being online often, even when you have no necessary tasks to achieve, in a way that draws your attention away from other activities and conversations.
- You feel anxious when you are offline for a few hours or even a few minutes, (other than worrying about work or school responsibilities).
- Use lose track of time when you are online, sometimes skipping meals or loosing sleep.
- You feel a sense of euphoria when you are online.
- You try to log off, but the next thing you know you are back on the Internet.
- You have to be online for longer and longer sessions to start to feel
- You feel disproportionally annoyed or frustrated if you are interrupted while online.
- You have trouble completing tasks at home or work, online or in the real world.
- You cannot remember the last time you had a conversation or did something truly fun with someone in person.
- You try to cut back or stop your Internet use and fail.
- You have lost or are in danger of loosing your job, important friendships, your relationship, a school scholarship, or significant work opportunities because of unrelated Internet use.
- You feel guilty about your Internet time, and/or lie about your use to loved ones or employers.
- You feel like you have no relationships in real life that are as significant and rewarding as your online relationships.
Breaking an Internet Addiction
Internet addiction, like other behavioral addictions can be resistant to treatment and has high relapse rates. But it can be transformed with perseverance. As with other addictions, it is important to get to the root cause of the addiction be it loneliness, boredom, lack of fulfilling relationships or work, depression, anxiety, or any other cause.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy has proven helpful to some people with IAD, because it systematically works to transform compulsive behaviors. Therapy also helps develop coping skills for the uncomfortable emotions that might be causing the compulsive behavior in the first place. Other techniques that can be very helpful include mindfulness and meditation, exercise, yoga, conscious relaxation, being in nature, and other physical hobbies like gardening.
It is important to cultivate and strengthen real relationships as a part of the recovery process. Now more than ever you need a solid support network. Make current and new friendships a priority in your life. It is not enough to just stop the addiction, in fact just trying to stop may not be very effective. You need to replace your Internet use with healthy activities and interactions. Find out what you actually enjoy doing that doesnt involve a screen, and go do it. Ultimately you need to make real life more interesting than your virtual life.
Pathological Internet use is a real thing, and being online too much is having real world consequences for hundreds of thousands of people. Like other behavioral addictions, it can cause serious harm to our bodies, minds, relationships, work, and overall wellbeing. It is important to recognize how the health and sustainability of your Internet use, and if necessary seek help to enable you to enjoy life fully without having to be attached to an electronic device.